As speaker of the senate — the second most powerful person in student government at the University of Rochester in New York — Sean Vereen had already been working hard on behalf of his fellow classmates during the 1998-1999 school year.
But after a number of racial incidents, including issues with campus security and a perceived lack of support for minority student life, Vereen, now a NationSwell Council member, decided that he needed to assume a more vocal role. “Eight of us got together and said that what was happening on campus was wrong,” he says. “We spent most of the fall and into the winter organizing a protest.”
Their goal? To gain more support for minority students.
Eventually, the planning meetings grew to 60 to 70 attendees. Their opinions led to the creation of a formal list of concerns among the University’s students of color.
As tension remained high on campus, Vereen recalls the president pulled him aside and said, “Look, if there’s something really bad happening, you can call my secretary to set up a meeting and I will clear my schedule within a day.”
So Vereen took advantage of the invitation, he recounted recently with a small chuckle. “I called a meeting with the president, but I didn’t tell him I was going to come with other people.”
Inspired by a scene in the movie, “Malcolm X,” the students dressed up in their finest clothes and peacefully marched in a single file line to the university president’s office. Remaining silent, they filled the hallways and did homework as local media documented the sit-in.
Meanwhile, Vereen and some of his fellow protesters negotiated with the president for an increase in the number of minority students recruited, the hiring of a more diverse faculty and staff and the creation of a diversity mission statement.
Once an agreement was reached, cheerful minority students then led a campus-wide march and rally in the student center that included celebratory singing of “We Shall Overcome.”
Vereen remembers those college days as a time when he learned the power of organizing and the necessity of collaborative work.
“We spent all this time putting the protest together and all of us brought something to the table. Some people were able to get a ton of friends to show up, others were good speakers. Someone like me had the connection with student government and knew the administration really well,” says Vereen.
Dr. Sean Vereen is the president of Steppingstone Scholars, an organization that works with families and schools to provide support for talented underserved students in the Philadelphia area. He is the former associate dean of opportunity and access at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.